IN RE: PETITION FOR SEPARATION OF PROPERTY ELENA BUENAVENTURA MULLER vs. HELMUT MULLER, G.R. No. 149615, August 29, 2006.
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Petitioner contends that respondent, being an alien, is disqualified to own private lands in the Philippines; that respondent was aware of the constitutional prohibition but circumvented the same; and that respondent’s purpose for filing an action for separation of property is to obtain exclusive possession, control and disposition of the Antipolo property.
Respondent claims that he is not praying for transfer of ownership of the Antipolo property but merely reimbursement; that the funds paid by him for the said property were in consideration of his marriage to petitioner; that the funds were given to petitioner in trust; and that equity demands that respondent should be reimbursed of his personal funds.
The issue for resolution is whether respondent is entitled to reimbursement of the funds used for the acquisition of the Antipolo property.
The petition has merit.
Section 7, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution states:
Save in cases of hereditary succession, no private lands shall be transferred or conveyed except to individuals, corporations, or associations qualified to acquire or hold lands of the public domain.
Aliens, whether individuals or corporations, are disqualified from acquiring lands of the public domain. Hence, they are also disqualified from acquiring private lands. 9 The primary purpose of the constitutional provision is the conservation of the national patrimony. In the case of Krivenko v. Register of Deeds, 10 the Court held:
Under section 1 of Article XIII of the Constitution, "natural resources, with the exception of public agricultural land, shall not be alienated," and with respect to public agricultural lands, their alienation is limited to Filipino citizens. But this constitutional purpose conserving agricultural resources in the hands of Filipino citizens may easily be defeated by the Filipino citizens themselves who may alienate their agricultural lands in favor of aliens. It is partly to prevent this result that section 5 is included in Article XIII, and it reads as follows:
"Sec. 5. Save in cases of hereditary succession, no private agricultural land will be transferred or assigned except to individuals, corporations, or associations qualified to acquire or hold lands of the public domain in the Philippines."
This constitutional provision closes the only remaining avenue through which agricultural resources may leak into aliens’ hands. It would certainly be futile to prohibit the alienation of public agricultural lands to aliens if, after all, they may be freely so alienated upon their becoming private agricultural lands in the hands of Filipino citizens. x x x
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If the term "private agricultural lands" is to be construed as not including residential lots or lands not strictly agricultural, the result would be that "aliens may freely acquire and possess not only residential lots and houses for themselves but entire subdivisions, and whole towns and cities," and that "they may validly buy and hold in their names lands of any area for building homes, factories, industrial plants, fisheries, hatcheries, schools, health and vacation resorts, markets, golf courses, playgrounds, airfields, and a host of other uses and purposes that are not, in appellant’s words, strictly agricultural." (Solicitor General’s Brief, p. 6.) That this is obnoxious to the conservative spirit of the Constitution is beyond question.
Respondent was aware of the constitutional prohibition and expressly admitted his knowledge thereof to this Court.11 He declared that he had the Antipolo property titled in the name of petitioner because of the said prohibition. 12His attempt at subsequently asserting or claiming a right on the said property cannot be sustained.
The Court of Appeals erred in holding that an implied trust was created and resulted by operation of law in view of petitioner’s marriage to respondent. Save for the exception provided in cases of hereditary succession, respondent’s disqualification from owning lands in the Philippines is absolute. Not even an ownership in trust is allowed. Besides, where the purchase is made in violation of an existing statute and in evasion of its express provision, no trust can result in favor of the party who is guilty of the fraud. 13 To hold otherwise would allow circumvention of the constitutional prohibition.
Invoking the principle that a court is not only a court of law but also a court of equity, is likewise misplaced. It has been held that equity as a rule will follow the law and will not permit that to be done indirectly which, because of public policy, cannot be done directly. 14 He who seeks equity must do equity, and he who comes into equity must come with clean hands. The latter is a frequently stated maxim which is also expressed in the principle that he who has done inequity shall not have equity. It signifies that a litigant may be denied relief by a court of equity on the ground that his conduct has been inequitable, unfair and dishonest, or fraudulent, or deceitful as to the controversy in issue. 15
Thus, in the instant case, respondent cannot seek reimbursement on the ground of equity where it is clear that he willingly and knowingly bought the property despite the constitutional prohibition.
Further, the distinction made between transfer of ownership as opposed to recovery of funds is a futile exercise on respondent’s part. To allow reimbursement would in effect permit respondent to enjoy the fruits of a property which he is not allowed to own. Thus, it is likewise proscribed by law. As expressly held in Cheesman v. Intermediate Appellate Court: 16
Finally, the fundamental law prohibits the sale to aliens of residential land. Section 14, Article XIV of the 1973 Constitution ordains that, "Save in cases of hereditary succession, no private land shall be transferred or conveyed except to individuals, corporations, or associations qualified to acquire or hold lands of the public domain." Petitioner Thomas Cheesman was, of course, charged with knowledge of this prohibition. Thus, assuming that it was his intention that the lot in question be purchased by him and his wife, he acquired no right whatever over the property by virtue of that purchase; and in attempting to acquire a right or interest in land, vicariously and clandestinely, he knowingly violated the Constitution; the sale as to him was null and void. In any event, he had and has no capacity or personality to question the subsequent sale of the same property by his wife on the theory that in so doing he is merely exercising the prerogative of a husband in respect of conjugal property. To sustain such a theory would permit indirect controversion of the constitutional prohibition. If the property were to be declared conjugal, this would accord to the alien husband a not insubstantial interest and right over land, as he would then have a decisive vote as to its transfer or disposition. This is a right that the Constitution does not permit him to have.
As already observed, the finding that his wife had used her own money to purchase the property cannot, and will not, at this stage of the proceedings be reviewed and overturned. But even if it were a fact that said wife had used conjugal funds to make the acquisition, the considerations just set out to militate, on high constitutional grounds, against his recovering and holding the property so acquired, or any part thereof. And whether in such an event, he may recover from his wife any share of the money used for the purchase or charge her with unauthorized disposition or expenditure of conjugal funds is not now inquired into; that would be, in the premises, a purely academic exercise. (Emphasis added)
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9 Ong Ching Po v. Court of Appeals, G.R. Nos. 113472-73, December 20, 1994, 239 SCRA 341, 346.
10 79 Phil. 461, 473, 476 (1947).
13 Morales v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 117228, June 19, 1997, 274 SCRA 282, 299.
14 Frenzel v. Catito, 453 Phil. 885, 905 (2003).
15 University of the Philippines v. Catungal, Jr., 338 Phil. 728, 743-744 (1997).
16 G.R. No. 74833, January 21, 1991, 193 SCRA 93, 103-104.